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HENRY PAYNE

Payne: Cruisin' away the COVID-19 blues on Woodward and beyond

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Birmingham — The Woodward Dream Cruise may look a little different this August as communities cancel events over COVID-19 virus concerns and corporate sponsors keep their distance. But the cruisers will come anyway.

Michigan motorheads are already hitting the streets this May as a cure for months of cabin fever.

About 100 cruisers gathered in Auburn Hills May 13 to enjoy their cars after the COVID lockdown.

Woodward Avenue — nicknamed “The COVID 500” by local residents — has been busy as spring weather brought out everything from classic sedans to modified hot rods to modern muscle cars. The Michigan Car Cruise Calendar Facebook page is teeming with posts as members share car gatherings and personal car updates.

In Rochester Hills last Wednesday a group of enthusiasts organized the “Afternoon Cruise” which attracted some 100 cars for a leisurely mid-day drive up and down Hamlin Street. Well, mostly leisurely. Some participants couldn’t resist the occasional tire-squealing burnout.

Muscle cars and street rods crowd Woodward as the cruising season starts in earnest.

“We thought is was a cool idea, so quite a few of our staff members participated,” explained Kim Zeile, founder of Trans-Am racing engine maker Prefix Corp., who helped organize the event. “The area is slowly beginning to open back up, and this was a safe and fun way to get some cool vehicles out and interact with fellow car enthusiasts.”

Enthusiasts gathered over a typical smorgasbord of dream rides — Porsche 911s, Jeeps, jacked-up pickups, Ford Focus pocket rockets, ol’ '50s jalopies — in the Prefix parking lot before cruising. Prefix provided a food truck for attendees to grab a quick lunch, and Mother Nature cooperated with a beautiful afternoon.

“It meant a little taste of feeling back to normal,” said participant Jhan Dolphin. “After all, not much can compare to the freedom of rolling down the windows and going for a drive in your favorite ride.”

A hot rod pickup attracts attention at the Auburn Hills "Afternoon Cruise."

Woodward Avenue is Michigan’s cruising main street and recent weekends have been busy. Growling street rods have been doing patented loops around the traditional, 16-mile parade route that runs from Ferndale to Pontiac. Others have gathered in Woodward parking lots — hoods propped open to display sparkling engines underneath — as owners swap stories and urge on passing classics.

The activity starts a slow build to the official, 26th annual Dream Cruise on Saturday, Aug. 15 this year. The cruise reportedly attracts up to 1.5 million people.

A Ford Focus RS looks rad in green at the Auburn Hills "Afternoon Cruise."

Those numbers may be down this year as enthusiasts — especially older demographics — weigh the risks of COVID-19 and as authorities pressure organizers to social distance. Organizers have declined comment to date, citing the virus situation as too fluid to make plans three months out from the Cruise.

An announcement is expected in early June. Insiders say there will be changes, with participants urged to stay in their cars while communities cancel most official events.

Woodward Dream Cruise Parking, which helps cruisers find spots on the crowded route, posted on its Facebook page this week that the “Woodward Dream Cruise is going to happen this year ... however, you will see big changes. Most of the organized community events will be canceled, including entertainment, concerts, car shows, vendors, Emergency Vehicle show, kid zone, etc., to keep large crowd gatherings to a minimum.”

An orange Lamborghini passes a parked boat along southbound Woodward in Birmingham during an August Woodward Dream Cruise.

The Dream Cruise has always been controversial among some local residents who object to the noise and odors that the rolling traffic jam brings each summer. With added concerns over COVID-19, nerves are more on edge this year.

FILE - Classic and modern cars cruise down Woodward Avenue in Ferndale during the Woodward Dream Cruise.

Paul Canvasser, a resident of Poppleton Park in Birmingham, recently wrote on Next Door that “I am fed up with the noise and racing that has overtaken Woodward. It is even more annoying since I have been isolated at home for several weeks. Everything else is shut down, but the cruising is the first thing to come back. It is time to alter this situation!”

The post received 310 community responses.

More gatherings are scheduled this weekend from Rochester to Woodward as the weather warms to 70 degrees. But critics may get their wish for a respite from the COVID 500 on Sunday. The chance of rain is 100 percent.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.